Donald Trump has stepped into an office that brings enormous power, but after two days of bombshell headlines, the growing question is whether he has the judgment and discipline to be entrusted with that authority.
Back-to-back revelations have the White House reeling into the deepest level of disarray yet seen in his chaotic young presidency.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had shared highly classified information with Russian diplomats.
Then, barely 24 hours later, the New York Times reported that the president had asked his now-fired FBI director, James B. Comey, to end a probe into Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn, according to a memo written by Comey at the time of the request in February.
Flynn was a close political associate of Trump who was being investigated for his own ties to Russia. The disclosure of Comey’s memo comes a week after he was dismissed, which critics say was an improper move by Trump, given that the FBI chief was leading an investigation of whether Russia had interfered in last year’s presidential election on Trump’s behalf.
Even before news of the Comey memo, Republicans on Capitol Hill were struggling to figure out what to make of all the disarray.
“Once again we are faced with inexplicable stories coming from the White House that are highly troubling,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock, whose Northern Virginia district is a top Democratic target in next year’s congressional election.
“We need to have immediate classified briefings on what occurred at this meeting so that Congress can at least know as much as Russian leaders and know the impact on our national security, our allies, and our men and women protecting our country,” she added.
It has become the pattern at moments like this: The White House’s explanation for a seemingly rash act on the president’s part are evolving and colliding.
As happened last week with Comey’s firing, each new turn has also brought more damage to the credibility of the hapless aides who are charged with selling a version of the truth, only to see it disintegrate.
When the original report came out about the president sharing intelligence with the Russians, the White House denied its accuracy.
Then, it shifted to insisting that Trump’s actions were “wholly appropriate” — a phrase that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster used no fewer than nine times in a midday briefing Tuesday.
And in between, the president himself tweeted: “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining … to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
Others, however, have a different view of a longtime adversary.
“It’s not helpful that this was with the Russians,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on MSNBC. “This is just weird. We and the Russians do not have aligned interests. They want to exacerbate our internal distrust of each other, they want to fracture NATO. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is an enemy of the freedom of the press, speech and assembly, which is the beating heart of what America means.”
A strong posture on national security has long been considered one of the Republicans’ greatest political strengths. One of Trump’s campaign ads last year ended with the tag line: “Donald Trump will protect you. He is the only one who can.”
The news that Trump offered intelligence to the Russians “breaks against the Trump brand,” said conservative commentator Charlie Sykes, a frequent critic of the president. “Not only are you appeasing an international adversary, but you’re doing it in a reckless, thoughtless way.”
“If Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had done it,” Sykes added, “Republicans would have had their hair on fire. This would have been 24/7 outrage, and a sign of weakness, and a sign of unfitness for office.”
Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill are becoming exasperated.
“We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so we can focus on our agenda,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“Can we have a crisis-free day?” asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “That’s all I’m asking.”
Democrats, meanwhile, say the latest crisis is forcing a reckoning with some fundamental truths about Trump himself.
“At some point, the Republican leadership is going to have to stop just looking at their shows, and come to grips with the fact that the [White House] is dysfunctional, and that he is erratic and impulsive,” said John Podesta, who was chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House and later chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
“They’re getting nervous about whether he can actually do the job,” Podesta added.
Any efforts that his party might make to defend him are undercut by the countless times that Republicans last year declared Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton unfit to be commander in chief, because she had put sensitive material on a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“She was entrusted with some of our nation’s most important secrets, and she betrayed that trust by carelessly mishandling highly classified information,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said last July.
At Trump rallies, his supporters regularly chanted: “Lock her up!”
But in Clinton’s case, the dangers of her reckless email practices were largely theoretical; there is no evidence that any sensitive material made it from her server into the hands of an adversary.
Trump actually volunteered information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
“This isn’t a question of legal propriety, but more a judgment with respect to the handling of sensitive information,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO. “It does look like sources and methods were at least put at risk.”
This was not the first instance in which the president has shown a disregard for security in dealing with confidential material.
When North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test in February, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed it in full view of patrons in the open-air dining area of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
Photos of the two national leaders reviewing documents by the light of an aide’s cellphone quickly made it onto social media.
“There’s no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater,” Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the leader of House Democrats, complained in her own tweet.
On Friday, a sharp-eyed Washington Post reader noted a photograph of Trump and bodyguard Keith Schiller in which a sticky note was visible on the outside of a stack of papers in Schiller’s hand. It said “Jim, Mad Dog, Mattis” and contained what turned out to be an actual private number for the Defense secretary. (The Post removed the photo from its website.)
Meanwhile, more concerns about Trump’s judgment were raised last week at the mere presence of the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office — concerns that escalated when it became clear that a photographer from the Russia’s government-run news agency Tass was there as well.
The meeting occurred the day after Trump fired Comey.